Pondering the idea of freedom

January 31, 2019

From the January-February issue of News & Letters

by Faruq

When thinking about an idea, what are we to make of it? It is a simple but serious question, which should generate some critical thought because there is power in an idea if it is allowed to develop to its full potential. Therein lies its contradictory aspect.

The philosopher G.W.F. Hegel observed when he wrote (paraphrasing): The idea is not so weak that it cannot hear itself speak. Hegel’s statement does not require a lot of unpacking. Hegel is stating the obvious as to the potential of an idea.

It is the position of materialist thinkers that an idea arises out of a specific set of social conditions. An idea is not born out of thin air or some kind of mythical phantom. What is being discussed here is strictly pertaining to the idea inseparable from the concrete reality of the daily lives of human beings. It has nothing to do with a metaphysical argument.

This discussion is centered on how live human beings, acting on their own sensuous nature and stimulated by specific social conditions, seek to particularize their humanity in a way that allows them self-expression. Self-expression is important because it too is inseparable from a serious discussion of human freedom.


What is the freedom idea and what does it look like concretely? These questions are not easy to answer because freedom is an abstract concept and will appear differently to people. Even if we attempt to define freedom as the total uprooting and complete eradication of oppressive capitalistic forces, it will appear differently to some. In the past and present, the discussion of freedom has taken various forms.

Freedom has an elusive quality that has escaped us so we are forced to engage in study of both historical and new theoretical literature. The objective is to not only reinvigorate the discussion of freedom, but also give the idea of freedom the direction it needs to address the lack of its fulfillment.

There exist a host of theories claiming to be the best approach to human freedom. That is understandable when one accepts the fact of human diversity. Knowledge of the dilemmas that have impeded the quest for freedom in the past reveals that the movement of humanity towards freedom will be multidimensional and multidirectional. Whatever the design, at the core must be the self-determination of the Idea of freedom.


The notion of the self-determination of the Idea has a mythical quality, but it is more profound than it sounds. We must be mindful that our central focus is freedom in the sense of it being our point of departure and return. We want to allow for the idea of freedom, its determination, to be the dialectical process that is the means by which we philosophically and in reality work out a new society free of the commodity fetishism of capitalist production.

The self-determination of the idea of freedom demands a narrative that speaks unequivocally to the need to transcend all vestiges of capitalist production. A sincere effort towards a total freedom from existing oppressive capitalistic social relations must proceed with a clear focus of what freedom might look like beyond capitalism.

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